Producing superior quality breeding stock that is not only of the highest health status but also of the type demanded in the market place is key to ensuring any profitable sheep business and one which is continually evolving at Blackford, Croy, where Billy and Anne MacPherson and Anne’s husband Raymond Baynes manage two already successful Blackface and Highland Mule enterprises.

No strangers to the top prices and indeed sale averages at the Highland Mule Breeders’ Association Hi Health sale at Dingwall Auction Mart, the farm regularly produces the champion pen of Mule ewe lambs, which in the past has sold to a top price of £198, while the select number of gimmers cashed every year is equally well sought after.

Last year, this saw the family who are better known for their pedigree Simmental and previous Charolais cattle herds, produce the champion pen of lambs which went on to sell for £175 per head with their consignment of 259 cashing in to average £107.41 per head. Their small number of gimmers sold to £150.

Equally notable is the fact that the family, have regularly topped the Blackface ram show and sale at Dingwall, having sold two shear rams to a top of £2200 to average £1237.50 in 2014, with their two-shear tups selling to £1800, £1300 and £1200 in 2016. Raymond last year purchased a small selection of ewes from the flock and is now producing shearlings in his own name.

However, while this continued success has always been based on home-bred Blackface ewes and traditional-type Bluefaced Leicester rams, market trends have seen a change in the type of sheep the family are now breeding.

The business, which revolves around 2760 of less favoured area acres rising to 1500ft above sea-level, is based on 850 Blackie ewes of which 400 are crossed to the Leicester to breed Highland Mule ewe lambs, with the remainder bred pure to produce home-bred replacements and shearling rams to use and sell at Dingwall.

Although huge fans of the traditional Bluefaced Leicester to breed their preferred type of Highland Mules and indeed those favoured in the market place at Dingwall, Raymond has recently introduced a few crossing type Blues in a bid to keep up with modern trends.

"I found it difficult to find enough good traditional Bluefaced Leicester tups, with power and size and a good carcase, which is what we are looking for to breed Highland Mules,” said Raymond. “There are also fewer traditional breeders in the market place, which limits the choice available for ourselves and other producers.

"We also have to keep up with the fashions and produce what the market demands, which at present means darker, cleaner coloured Highland Mule ewe lambs,” he added.

This enabled the introduction of a couple of crossing type Bluefaced Leicesters bought at the Kelso Ram Sales, to include a Newbigging Walls shearling ram purchased for £2400 in 2017. The sire of many of the top priced ewe lambs at Dingwall last year, this tup also scooped several prize tickets at agricultural shows in the north last year to include the supreme sheep honours at Grantown.

Just as passionate about their Blackface flock, Anne and Raymond have also introduced a few different bloodlines to this flock in a bid to keep up with current trends in both their Highland Mule and Blackface shearling ram enterprises

"If Blackface shearling rams are big and long with plenty shape and power they are easily sold at Dingwall," said Anne, who added that a Perth-type or north-type Blackface ram has been used over their south-type flock in a bid to keep the size in their Blackface ewes. “The primary aim for us is to breed big strong Blackface ewes which will produce Mule ewe lambs with plenty length and carcase”.

Raymond added: “There is no point in having a lamb that has a good head but is half the size of other breeders’ lambs ¬- size is very important."

And by breeding bigger, stronger Mule ewe lambs, their male counterparts are worth more too, with all such wedder lambs sold finished through Woodheads, Turriff, gaining 10p per kg bonus through the Mey Select Scheme. The Blackface wedder lambs are sold through the same scheme.

While Anne is very much in charge of the family’s well-known pedigree Simmental and Charolais herds which regularly bags numerous awards at both local and national shows, Raymond and his daughter Anna, are just as capable of bringing out the star performers in the sheep lines. In the past this has seen them triumph at local shows.

While the shows and sales are often highlights of the year, back home on the farm there is a lot of hard work to be done – and particularly at lambing time when foxes can pose a real problem. As a result, Blue tups are harnessed and colour coded thereby enabling the flock to be split according to when they are due to come inside for lambing. Once lambed, they are straight back out to the field, depending on the weather, enabling space for the next batch to come inside.

Increased lambing percentages amongst the crossing flock always leads to spare lambs too which this year saw 51 pet lambs fed via an automatic feeder.

While both Raymond and Anne attend to the sheep Anne’s heart lies with the farm’s Simmental cattle, with breeding decisions discussed in depth with her father, Billy. They now have a total of 25 cows, after their dispersal of Charolais cattle three years ago, who was purchased by John and James Graham, Burnbank, Stirling. The firm still holds the Simmental breed record price of 45,000gns with Bel Dhu Capercaillie, the bull was sold at United Auctions, Stirling in February 2013 purchased by the Simmental Judge on the day, Iain Green in partnership with Andrew Anderson of Smallburn Farms, Elgin.

Anne is always kept busy with also having a strong interest in photography in which she occasional does weddings and other events as a ‘hobby’ in any spare time she has.

The family believe there will always be future for Mules being able to use any tup being the advantage and producing two strong lambs! Currently, Blackford are full to capacity with livestock numbers, although they would love to have more cattle but just not the space to do so, due to the cattle basically having an eight month wintering, it is not easy to function.

“Although there is a lot of uncertainty at the moment, we are still optimistic about the future of farming as we believe farmers will always be needed in some form, and the Mule breed can do favours for all commercial flocks” concluded Anne and Raymond.